The Carlos DeLuna case: Definitive proof that Texas executed an innocent man?

A Columbia law professor and his team compile a massive, super-detailed dossier alleging that Texas sent the wrong Carlos to his death two decades ago

A photo of Carlos DeLuna taken in January 1983
(Image credit: YouTube)

Supporters of the death penalty routinely dismiss the notion that innocent people can get ground up in the wheels of justice. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, for example, wrote in 2006 that not "a single case — not one — [exists] in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit." Well, "Scalia may have to eat his words," says Ed Pilkington at Britain's The Guardian. In Columbia Human Rights Law Review, law professor James Liebman and five of his students lay out over 436 heavily footnoted pages in support of their case that Texas executed the wrong man when it sent Carlos DeLuna to his death in 1989. Are their arguments conclusive? Here's what you should know:

What crime was DeLuna convicted of?

On Feb. 4, 1983, Corpus Christi convenience store clerk Wanda Lopez was stabbed to death with an 8-inch buck knife. The police found DeLuna hiding under a truck a few blocks away, and several witnesses told the cops he looked like the killer. DeLuna always maintained that he didn't do it, but waited until his trial was imminent to allege that someone named Carlos Hernandez was the real killer. The lead prosecutor, Steve Schiwetz, dismissed DeLuna's claim, calling Hernandez a "phantom" and "figment of DeLuna's imagination." DeLuna was executed in 1989.

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What did Prof. Liebman's team uncover?

Liebman got involved with the case in 2003, and it took a detective he hired exactly one day to track down Carlos Hernandez, who was a repeat violent offender with a history of slashing women with his ubiquitous buck knife — and who looked amazingly similar to DeLuna. In the several years that Liebman and his team of 12 researchers spent delving into the case, it also emerged that Hernandez frequently bragged about killing Lopez and letting his "stupid tocayo" (namesake) DeLuna take the fall. Hernandez died in prison, of natural causes, in 1999, after being jailed for attacking a neighbor with a knife.

What else did they learn?

The whole case against DeLuna "was a house of cards," Liebman tells The Guardian. "Everything that could go wrong did go wrong," from extremely shoddy police work to inept defense lawyers to devious prosecutors. The main witness said the killer was unkempt with a mustache, which fit Hernandez but not the clean-shaven DeLuna. DeLuna had no trace of blood on him despite the bloody mess in the store, including a bloody footprint the police never measured. And the police said they couldn't find a "Carlos Hernandez" despite his long rap sheet — and probable work as a frequent police informant.

What do DeLuna's prosecutors say?

Schiwetz, the prosecutor, mostly stands by his case. He says Hernandez typically targeted people he knew, while DeLuna robbed strangers; that DeLuna's initial alibi was easily disproved; and that he confessed to a sheriff's deputy — a claim Liebman's team disputes. "I'm open to the argument that somebody named Carlos Hernandez really did it," Schiwetz tells The Huffington Post, "but everything I know confirms the original impression that De Luna did it." Regarding Liebman's report: "These guys are crusaders," Schiwetz tells the Houston Chronicle, "What can I say?"

Is this irrefutable proof that an innocent man was put to death?

Yes, says Andrew Cohen at The Atlantic. After this definitive report, "no one can ever say again with a straight face that America doesn't execute innocent men. No one." This was a failure of the police, the courts, the local media, and the community. "If a new trial was somehow able to be conducted today, a jury would acquit DeLuna," Richard Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center tells The Huffington Post. And yet, it's hard to say this proof is irrefutable. "We don't have a perfect case where can agree that we have an innocent person who's been executed, but by weight of this investigation, I think we can say this is as close as a person is going to come."

What lessons can we draw from this case?

Before this case, Liebman says, I believed botched capital punishment cases were mostly high-profile murders in which harried cops made mistakes. "Now, I think the worst cases are those that likely happen every day, in which no one cares that much about the defendant or the victim." Justice is fallible, says The Atlantic's Cohen. And "on the day, sooner than you think, when the United States Supreme Court again outlaws the death penalty, the justices will almost certainly cite the DeLuna case as one of the prime reasons why."

Sources: AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Houston Chronicle, Huffington Post, NPR, PBS Frontline

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